By Ralph E. Gordon
Prior to 1905, folks in the northern part of Newton County traveled by horse and buggy, mule and wagon, rode a horse, rode a mule, or sometimes they used the oldest form of transportation known to man. They walked. It would probably be safe to say, they stayed home more often than not, and when they did go somewhere, it was out of necessity, and not far from home. In 1905 things began to change. Life began to change. Progress was on the way.
The Mobile and Ohio Rail Road (M&O) laid tracks running north and south through the heart of the county, connecting Union with Decatur, and Newton to the south, and Philadelphia to the north. Eventually, connections were developed on into Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago. During that same year, the Meridian and Memphis Rail Road (M&M) laid tracks connecting Union and Meridian. These ribbons of steel not only changed the way folks traveled, they changed their way of life forever.
Some thirty miles of tracks were laid between Union and Meridian, using mostly manual labor to handle the heavy crossties and rails. Men swung nine pound hammers in the heat of summer, and in the cold of winter, driving spikes into treated oak crossties. For the most part, mule drawn dirt slips were used to build the roadbed. What few steam powered machines they used in building the line were confined to the newly built tracks, unlike bulldozers, and rubber tired earth movers of today.
Trestle bridges had to be constructed across the Little Rock, the Tallhashie and the Okatibbee Creeks as well as smaller streams. Workers, who built the railroad, nicknamed the M&M the Mud and Misery because of the swamps they had to cross, and the heavy rains which fell that year. Mosquitos and snakes were a constant menace in the blistering summer. Icy rain made life miserable for the workers during the winter months. The hours were long, and the work was grueling, but it provided a paycheck, something many Newton County farm boys had never seen before joining the construction crew.
The first train to run the line was dubbed the “Doodlebug” which was a one car trolley-like vehicle with seats for passengers, and enough room for the mail, and a few small freight items. The Doodlebug departed Meridian in the morning bound for Union, where it turned around, and headed back to Meridian, that same afternoon. Eventually a larger steam engine replaced the Doodlebug. It pulled one passenger car, and as many freight cars as needed. In the early years a train was made up of two or three freight cars, along with a caboose. Diesel-electric locomotives replaced the steam engines on the line in 1946. The more powerful diesels pulled as many as seventy cars. They hauled everything from canned beans, to chemicals, to cotton bales. Perhaps the most unique piece of cargo shipped into Union by rail was a prefabricated house kit from Sears and Roebuck, delivered to a Mr. Nutt, around 1915.
The M&M gave birth to several hamlets, and business in Newton and Lauderdale Counties. The first stop for passengers who purchased their twenty five cent tickets from Union to Meridian, was Willoughby, about three miles out, near the Greenland Community. Their next stop was Little Rock, where Bunion Williams operated one of the largest cotton gins in Newton County, and then on to Perdu, and Duffee in Newton County. The train stopped at Shambersville and Suqualena in Lauderdale County before reaching its final destination in Meridian. The trip took about three hours.
William H. Smith, who celebrated his one hundredth birthday in January of 2012, recalled boarding the M&M at the Perdu station when he joined the Navy in 1934. He rode the train to Union, where he connected with the M&O to Newton, and then made a second connection with the Illinois Central to Jackson where he was processed into the service.
The M&M changed owners and names at least three times during its lifetime. A complete list of mergers of the railroads that served Newton County are too numerous to list, but this is a condensed version; in the early 1940s the M&M merged with the Gulf Mobile and Ohio line (GM&O.) The GM&O merged with the Illinois Central around 1970 and formed the Illinois Central Gulf (ICG). Several mergers have occurred since then.
As with other railroads, the coming of the automobile eventually diminished the need for the rail service between Union and Meridian, more especially for passenger service. The last passenger train departed the Union Depot in 1951.
Union was a major railroad terminal in the early 1900s. The town owes much of its existence to the railroad. Originally, the center of the town was located about a mile east of its present location on Old Jackson Road, (Mississippi Highway 492), where the Spaceway Store and the new Family Dollar Store are presently located, but the location of the railroad changed that. Business gravitated to the west to be near the depot and railroad.
New businesses sprang up in Union, thanks to the railroads. One of those businesses was Buckwalter Lumber Company. Buckwalter was a major supplier of lumber in Mississippi from 1906 until 1961. The company built small railroads which paralleled the M&M line, called dummy lines. These short railroads hauled logs from the woods to a loading area. From there, the logs were loaded onto the M&M flat cars, and transported to the sawmill in Union. Remnants of the dummy line road beds can still be seen in the woods between Union and Duffee.
By the late 1960s, light freight was rapidly becoming a thing of the past on boxcars across the United States. Trucks were faster. They cut down on the number of times an item had to be handled, by delivering their loads directly to their destination, and ultimately less expensive than the railroads. Eventually most of the cargo hauled on the short Union/Meridian line was bulky items, and petroleum products. Pulpwood from the wood-yards along the way made up a large portion of the freight. Little Rock wood-yard was among the bigger ones. But as technology changed the method in which pulpwood was harvested, it also changed the way it was transported. Instead of short five-foot lengths hauled on specially designed rail cars, more and more pulpwood cutters began hauling tree-length cuts on eighteen wheel trucks to more centralized railheads, like Meridian, for transportation to paper mills. The closing of the small wood-yards in the 1970s dealt the final blow to the life of the ICG between Union and Meridian.
While the railroad no longer serves Little Rock, the rail yard is still abuzz in Union, thanks to the giant Tyson feed mill there. Each year hundreds of tons of corn and other grains arrive from farms in the Mid-West, and the Mississippi Delta to fill Tyson’s needs. Dozens of grain cars can be seen lined up, waiting to be unloaded, or waiting to be pulled back to their homes for another load.
The whistle of the GM&O is but a distant memory to the people of Willoughby and Little Rock—or is it? Some folks claim they can still here its lonely whine echoing across the red clay hills and marshy hollows, late in the afternoon, about the time the train would be making its return trip to Meridian.
The dates in this poem, The Ghost Train, obviously don’t square with the dates in the article but, the M&M could be any abandoned railroad, and Little Rock could be any town progress built, and then left behind.
THE GHOST TRAIN
Ralph E. Gordon
In eighteen hundred and fifty-nine,
tracks were laid for M&M Line.
Mud and Misery she was called back then,
built by the sweat and the blood of good men.
For more’n a century she hauled riders and freight,
not a single time was she ever late.
She hauled brothers and cannons for the Blue and the Gray.
She saw many young men meet the judgment day.
She carried sailors and soldiers to two world wars,
America’s bravest rode in cattle cars.
Women folks would wait by the tracks,
praying she would bring all the young men back.
They took up her rails many years ago,
but the M&M whistle still wails and blows,
‘cause an old steam engine still runs the line.
You can hear her whistle blow around suppertime.
A man named Kirby is her engineer,
She squeaks and she rattles as she’s drawing near.
She’s hauling cotton, and cattle and coal and grain.
You can even hear her brakeman yodel and sing.
Some are skeptic and don’t believe,
But I’ve heard her whistle on a summer’s eve.
If you have faith, you can set your clock,
by the Old Ghost Train to Little Rock.